"We don’t benefit from ignorance.”
—President Obama, January 16, 2013, at a press conference on his plan for new gun control legislation
When you look at a gun, do you see danger or safety? It all depends on the angle you’re looking from, risk perception expertssay. The gun control debate is ultimately a clash of competing worldviews, and it’s very fraught. Each side draws on symbolic narratives—I would call them myths—with deep roots in the American past.
The big challenge for gun-control advocates will be to summon up a master-myth, a story that takes aim at the heart of the great American love affair with guns—and that will be a tricky shot.
First, a tour of the contested terrain.
Have Peacemaker, Will Travel
Richard Slotkin called 20th-century America the “gunfighter nation.” That was the title of the last volume of his trilogy, the classic study of the central role that frontier violence has played in America’s cultural self-perception. But the two earlier volumes suggest that the whole trilogy might well have borne that name.
Guns have always symbolized “the frontier.” And for vast numbers of Americans, the cultural idea and ideal of the frontier have symbolized what they think their nation is all about. Out on the frontier, the classic story goes, a man simply must have a gun and the freedom to use it. He couldn’t survive without it. He needs it to get food for his family and to defend them in times of danger. But as long as potential enemies out there know that he’s got his gun—and he knows when and how to use it—there isn’t likely to be much danger. That’s why his gun is a “peacemaker.”
(I use the word “man” here very intentionally. The gun is obviously highly gendered symbol, America’s favorite mythic image of traditionally masculine virtues: strength, courage, rugged independence, protection of family… the list goes on and on.)
It’s not surprising that Slotkin needed three thick volumes to unpack the vast complex of symbolic meanings loaded into that little story. The story is dripping with infinitely rich, interwoven messages about the cultural significance of guns. Just to scratch the surface:
The gun is seen as the key to freedom in a classic American sense—the self-reliant individual, able to care for himself and his family without having to ask for help or, more importantly, permission from anyone. The gun also gives him the freedom to move out into the wilderness safely, to tame and civilize the wilderness, bringing order where there once was only chaos.
The free American must always face danger lurking somewhere “out there,” beyond the edges of civilization. The gun represents his confidence that he has the strength and courage to fend off that danger, whatever form it may take. But the gun also represents the fear that his little piece of civilization might at any time come under threat from savages who would destroy it. The very idea that one must have a gun to be secure is bound to perpetuate an underlying (and sometimes very overt) sense of insecurity.
But as long as everyone knows that everyone else has a gun and is prepared to use it, who is likely to draw first? Yes, there will be a few evildoers; only shooting (or hanging) is good enough for them. But most people will be sensible enough to settle their quarrels in less deadly ways. So whether we look at the sensible folks or the evildoers, the gun is the source of the community’s peace and quiet.
That’s not the only way that the gun—the ultimate symbol of rugged individualism—also symbolizes social values. There’s also the traditional, and crucial, American ideal of neighbors banding together in times of danger to protect the community they have built together. That was the original impulse behind the state militias, which are cited in the Second Amendment as the one and only reason that every American should be guaranteed the right to bear (not “buy and own” but “keep and bear”) arms. Guns are “necessary to the security of a free State,” the Amendment tell us.
Indeed we first won our national freedom and security with guns. Our Revolution began, Emerson’s myth-making poem tells us, when “embattled farmers” collectively fired a single “shot heard round the world.” We had no need of professional soldiers; just ordinary folks like you and me who were brave enough to demand freedom at the point of a gun. That’s how we opened up for the whole world the possibility of winning the same freedom, the story says—as long as they, too, are willing to pick up the gun.
Today we no longer need an Emerson. We have “national security experts” who explain that the threats to freedom are greater than ever, which is why we do need a professional army with the most sophisticated guns. But the principle remains the same, and so does the symbolism of the gun. The logical implication: If things got threatening enough, all red-blooded Americans would be willing to pick up and use those sophisticated guns.
In the rush from origins to the present day, let’s not skip over the Civil War, when the most sophisticated guns of the day freed the slave. At least that’s the popular version of our history, the traditional complement to Emerson’s popular version of the Revolution.
Just Show Up and Shoot
So the gun is at the center of the story of America as it’s so commonly told: a people always loving freedom, always under attack because of that love, and always ready to fight back to to preserve freedom, for themselves and for the whole world. It’s a story in which we are all living on the frontier, all the time. It would be downright self-destructive for a man to willingly give up his guns. Only a fool would even suggest it.
I've referred to the manly aura that gilds the mythical image of the gun. A few more particulars deserve special mention:
Guns are deservedly symbols of “Yankee ingenuity,” the widespread belief that Americans have a special talent for technological invention, a traditionally masculine preserve. High demand for guns was in fact a major motive for developing interchangeable parts, which made mass production possible. Names like Samuel Colt, Oliver Winchester, and Richard Gatling are high on the list of America’s industrial pioneers. Their products, along with other famous gun names, have become icons in the history of American technology. When gun owners talk about their love for these marvelous machines, there is sometimes a palpably erotic tone to their words and voices.
Which leads to another obviously masculine virtue so often associated with guns: virility. That’s not to say only men own guns. Far from it, of course. But guns can easily symbolize virility even when women own and use them.
As I write, I’m looking at an advertising circular that I picked up in a motel lobby in Texas, touting a local “Gun Range and Training Center.” A buxom woman is pictured, wearing a black leather corset and holding a pistol in firing position. But she’s not looking at her target. She’s looking right at me, with a sort of “come hither, I dare you” stare. Below her are the words “Just Show Up and Shoot!” And further down, in bold: “Try Renting a Full-Auto Sub Machine Gun.”
Even the most skeptical reader of Freud will have to admit that the long, round, rigid barrel of a gun is bound to be—at least in America—a gendered symbol.
I keep this ad up on my refrigerator because it gets a hearty laugh from almost every visitor. That’s a useful reminder of a central significance of guns that non-gun-owners often forget: They’re fun. They’re owned and used largely for sport. And when they’re not being used, guns can be fondled for the pure pleasure of it. The fun aspect, too, is largely seen as a “guy thing,” even when the gun owners are women.
Teddy Roosevelt knew all this very well when he led his well-armed Rough Riders up San Juan hill, and when he sent the Great White Fleet—sixteen battleships armed with huge protruding guns—around the world to project American power. Both ventures expressed TR’s aim to imbue America with the rugged “manly” virtues that he learned as a cowboy and a lover of competitive sports.
However TR was a paradoxical figure. He saw the “manly” virtues being eroded by an urbanizing, industrializing nation. And the dangers he saw there brought him into the camp of the Progressives, who are the prime historical source for whatever mythic and symbolic resources gun control advocates can muster.
Those advocates share (though most may not know it) an essential part of the Progressives’ myth: Historical change brings many advances to human life but also many dangers. As societies evolve they learn to watch out for new dangers, and they enact new rules to protect their members from those dangers.
Once societies get big enough, they create representative government to enact the rules. And once a problem gets complicated enough (which nearly all are, by now) the government relies on experts who have studied it in depth and figured out logical ways to solve it.
Logic is the key to the story. In this case, once we know how many thousands of Americans are killed by guns each year and know that places with the fewest guns have the fewest murders, it’s only logical to regulate gun ownership and possession.
But even the most convincing logic can rarely defeat a rich, emotionally powerfully, historically deep-rooted myth. And the gun control advocates’ progressive myth is depressingly thin and emotionally weak compared to the thick, potent store of narrative wielded by their opponents.
Where might the pro-control forces look for more mythic and symbolic resources to beef up their public appeal? The most obvious place to look for myth and symbol working creatively along with rational argument is organized religion.
Shoot Thy Neighbor
The Progressives of Teddy Roosevelt’s day got significant support from religion in the form of the Social Gospel movement, which added to progressive logic an inspirational call to respond to God’s love by loving our neighbors. The same call is still heard today in the push to control guns.
But the power of religion to shape social values and government legislation was already waning even at the height of the Progressive era. The Social Gospel movement back then, despite its undeniable influence, was generally an adjunct to successful progressive programs, not their spearhead (with the notable exceptions of alcohol prohibition and, decades later, African-American civil rights).
Today the descendants of the Social Gospel have even less power to influence political outcomes. Despite the growing public voice of progressive religion, that voice is still rather marginal when it comes to actually influencing public perceptions and wielding political clout.
That’s a stark contrast to pre-20th century America, when nearly all reform movements were initiated and led by Christian groups and legitimated by explicitly Christian narratives. Though many factors accounted for the declining power of religiously-based reform, one stands out above the others:
Through the end of the 19th century, most Americans ascribed social ills to the moral failings of individuals; in short, to the power of sin. That view was shared across the political spectrum, embraced as firmly by reformers—the forerunners of today’s progressives—as by their conservative opponents. Reform movements were, to a large extent, crusades for personal virtue and against sin.
Progressivism changed all that by redefining the cause of social ills: Not individual sin but impersonal social systems (driven by capitalist greed for money, some said) came to be seen as the root of all evil. The logical conclusion was to worry less about making souls virtuous and more about legislating changes to systems.
This shift is still visible today throughout the political arena, including the debate over gun control. Gun control advocates may have their own opinions about the moral status of individual gun owners. But those opinions rarely figure in their political rhetoric, even when communities of faith add their collective voice.
Instead the pro-control movement focuses on defining which guns (and ammunition) should be controlled and what systems can be put into place to most effectively institutionalize and enforce those controls. Citing the evidence gathered by experts, pro-controllers make their arguments with logic that many of us find compelling.
Yet they must fight tooth and nail for even the smallest changes because their impeccable logic always runs up against that immense obstacle: the mythology of the gun.
The gun control movement might want to reflect on this lesson of American history: Reform movements have been most successful when they combined facts and rational arguments with the powerful mythic and symbolic image of a crusade against sin.
Of course we can’t simply go back to the 19th century. Moral issues must be addressed in more nuanced terms today. But there are many Americans who still respond strongly to the language of virtue and sin. They might be more open to the arguments for gun control if those arguments were framed in terms of individual moral virtue.
The danger here is alienating the many other Americans who cringe at any mention of the word “sin.” But sin need not be understood in the Niebuhrian sense of original sin. Though many 19th-century reformers held some notion of original sin, when they entered the political arena they drew much more on the Arminian sense of a sin as a morally wrong, but freely made, choice. Today’s gun controllers would surely agree that obeying or disobeying the law is a free, individual choice.
To use this Arminian sense of sin in the gun control debate may come perilously close to the pro-gun argument that “guns don’t kill people, people kill people.” But we are heirs of the progressives as well as the 19th-century reformers. We don’t have to choose between individual responsibility and systemic reform through government action. We can combine the two.
We already have good examples of modern movements that have used this dual approach: the campaigns to reduce drunk driving and second-hand smoke inhalation. In both cases, while laws were enacted, there were also rather successful crusades (probably not too strong a word) to stigmatize individual violators as… well, we don’t exactly have a word for it, but in the 19th century they would have called the violators sinners. And the key to reform was the conviction that it’s never too late; sinners can always repent, choose the path of virtue, and redeem themselves.
The gun control movement should emphasize that such reform movements are a glorious American tradition. To call all Americans to change their ways, while using the levers of government to encourage them, is deeply American.
Let the call sound throughout the land: Owners of assault rifles, high-capacity ammunition magazines, and all guns with inadequate safety locks; sellers of guns who evade or ignore rigorous background checks; parents who fail to keep their legal guns safely under lock and key: This is sin. There is another way, a more patriotic way. The choice is yours. And the time to choose is now. Tomorrow may be, quite literally, too late.